The image of a caveman biting into a meaty mammoth steak would seem to contrast with this week's warning about red and processed meats from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), but experts say that the two concepts don't cancel each other out.
Ample archaeological evidence supports that many human cultures in the past regularly consumed red meat, but multiple factors ranging from cooking methods to average human lifespan meant that red meat was a savory meal for countless such individuals and not necessarily a health threat.
"Cancer was not much of a problem back then for one simple reason -- people didn't usually live long enough to develop it," Carl Winter of the University of California at Davis Food Science and Technology department told Discovery News, explaining that older adults have a higher risk for cancer.
Susan Gapstur, vice president for the Epidemiology Research Program for the American Cancer Society, echoed Winter's statement, adding that risk for colon cancer is especially known to increase with age.
The hunter-gatherer lifestyle also resulted in a feast-or-famine pattern that involved a lot of exercise.
It was not unusual for hunters to spend two days or more tracking down prey, Alice H. Lichtenstein, professor of nutrition science and policy at Tufts University, told Discovery News. Once they made a kill, they would all gorge on the meat, sharing it among the entire hunting party, she added.
The hunters may not have eaten that much red meat due to the sharing, and exercise was a given. Lichtenstein even wonders if exercise affects modern data on red meat, since it could be that people who tend to exercise more also regularly eat more fruits, vegetables and fish.
Additionally, Laura Buck of the Natural History Museum and her colleagues point out in a new Journal of Archaeological Science paper that modern hunter-gatherers, such as the Hadza of Tanzania, eat a diet that is 53 percent plant-based, 32 percent animal-based and 15 percent honey-based. While hunting or otherwise traveling, the Hazda often forage, adding all sorts of non-meat items to their diet.
Another factor is how meat is prepared. In a recent paper in the journal Antiquity, Sabrina Krief of the Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle and her colleagues mention that Neanderthals likely boiled meats and other ingredients. They point out that "boiling crushed bone is known to facilitate bone fat extraction and even to improve vitamin and mineral availability."
While this week's IARC report on red and processed meats does not address cooking methods, prior research concludes that directly cooking meat over high heat -- such as broiling, grilling or BBQ-ing -- increases associated health risks.
Still other research, led by anthropologist Alston Thoms of Texas A&M University, found that "hot rock cookery" was more common back in the day than we tend to think.
Thoms explained to Discovery News that "stone boiling is reported to have been practiced on every continent on earth."
He added that underground steaming, very similar to Hawaiian luau-type cooking, was also likely prevalent.
Our early ancestors also might have consumed more fish than is frequently now believed. Early human remains from parts of Europe and Asia, for example, suggest that fish was practically all some people ate.
In Africa several million years ago "there was a continuous waterway between East Africa and Lake Chad," Gabriele Macho, of Oxford University's School of Archaeology, told Discovery News. People living alongside it, and the lake, would have had access to many fish species.
Human evolution studies do not point to a single beneficial food or way of eating, which goes against many of the diets that have emerged in recent years.
"Diets such as the low-fat, low-carb and paleo diets all seem to come and go," said Lichtenstein, who believes it's more important to get regular exercise and eat a balanced selection of foods that are consistent with personal taste and cultural considerations.
Then there is what could be called the "Winston Churchill Effect."
"Most of us know of someone like Churchill who smoked and drank for much of his life and still lived to a ripe old age," she said. "This indicates that there is a genetic component to aging that benefits some but not others."